Friday, May 20, 2011

What's invisible for Osama is visible for Obama.

The operation to kill Bin Laden had an interesting technology/innovation twist to it. According to The Washington Post,

The CIA employed sophisticated new stealth drone aircraft to fly dozens of secret missions deep into Pakistani airspace and monitor the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed.

The stealth drones were used on the night of the raid, providing imagery that President Obama and members of his national security team appear in photographs to have been watching as U.S. Navy SEALs descended on the compound shortly after 1 a.m. in Pakistan.

A stupid question to ask, "Why the drones appear invisible to the Pakistanis and bin Laden, but clearly "visible" to Obama and his CIA team?"

To think of it, the drones are intentionally designed to provide lots of information and must be visible and controllable with a high degree of certainty. Technically speaking, visibility is what me make of signals in a certain band of wireless spectrum. In this regard, a stealth drone is not that different from a wireless computer mouse or mobile phone you use every day. That is, all these devices are meant to exchange signals with the rest of the information system. The mouse talks to the computer, the mobile talks to the base station, the stealth drone talks to spy satellites and military communications planes. Their signals are out there in "plain sight". But the Pakistanis and the terrorists are plugged into a wrong network. That is, they are still locked into the 70-year old radar technology infrastructure.

The development of practical RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging) technology by Robert Watson Watt's team during World War II revolutionized military aircraft detection. Before that, Nazi bombers, flying above the clouds, heading for the British Islands, would be only "hearable" at a relatively close range, which often was too late for effective air defenses. Many civilian lives were saved by the new radio wave reflection detection method. Over the last 70 years billions of dollars and engineer years were sunk building out radar network infrastructure, both military and civilian. The system is so big and so entrenched into today's air defenses world-wide that it's now impossible to teach it a new trick: look for communication signals instead of radar-band radio wave reflections. With the development of modern stealth materials, the radar revolution that started in 1930-40s has run its course in military applications.

With this background, it's easy to predict that 30-40 years from now military detection systems will be based on communication intercepts. Stealth drones will cease to be stealthy and will have to rely on something totally different. Engineers will have to find a way to communicate without being detected. And the game of visible-invisible will go into its next cycle.

tags: innovation, detection, problem, infrastructure, information, example, payload,  source

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